With all due respect to President Obama, I think he's forgetting something when he calls for more emphasis on math and science in the schools.
Yes, they're important. They will be crucial to our kids competing successfully in the global market.
But will it also make them better citizens? Not necessarily. For that, they'll need to be well grounded in another subject, one that is getting almost no resources at all: history.
How can they tell where our country is going if they don't know where it's been? How will they be able to see through demagogues' lies if they don't know the real story?
George Orwell's Big Brother said, "He who controls the past controls the future, and he who controls the present controls the past." That was true while I was growing up in the 1950s, when the textbooks taught us the "Gone With The Wind" version of the Civil War: namely, that the slaves were happy with their lot, and the Ku Klux Klan were the good guys.
That myth made it much harder for everyone to face the truth about race relations in this country, and it delayed the march of justice for many generations.
The only protection against politicians' lies is a well-informed public. That means citizens who understand that the United States is NOT a "Christian country," as some claim; it's a country that was founded by Christians who were deeply skeptical of allowing any church, even their own, to dictate how everyone should act.
The Founding Fathers had read their history, and they knew all too well what had happened in Europe, where religious wars devastated the population.
They also knew their ancient history, and they knew that the Roman republic was destroyed when it abandoned the rule of law, leaving Rome at the mercy of competing generals.
That's why they created three different branches of government and balanced them carefully so that none of them could overpower the other two.
But when a society forgets its past, it's forced to reinvent the wheel, re-fighting battles that everyone assumed were won decades ago.
Don't believe me? Look at the current efforts to undermine abortion rights, access to contraception, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Pernicious special interests are trying to undo these dearly won freedoms, and the greatest weapon they have going for them is our collective historical amnesia.
But apart from such practical considerations, there's one more reason to study history, which was best expressed by one of my college professors, John Morton Blum. He said, "When you come down to it, the best reason to is that it's so much fun!"
And he was right. What human mind, even Shakespeare's, could come up with stories that are as fascinating as those that happened in real life?
Take Nell Gwynn, the mistress of King Charles II, who balanced the rival interests in his kingdom by having two official mistresses: one Catholic and one Protestant.
An angry Protestant mob surrounded Nell's coach as it was entering the palace, howling, "Hang the King's Catholic whore!"
"Wait, good people!" cried Nell. "I am the King's Protestant whore!"
And they carried her into the palace on their shoulders, cheering all the way.
You can't make stuff like this up.